Write what you know – Ann Hood

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By Ann Hood

For exactly one day my freshman year in college I was a journalism major. I wanted to be a writer, and back in 1974 at my state college, there were no creative writing classes. The only curriculum that included writing was journalism, so I signed on. But within minutes I realized I was in the wrong class. ♥

The professor actually told us to stick with just the facts — what we knew. “Who, what, where, when, and why,” he said, tapping his pencil on the podium with each syllable. When class ended, I marched to the Registrar’s office and changed my major to English Literature. What, I wondered, was interesting in what I already knew? I wanted to write to discover what I didn’t yet know.

Still, new writers are always given that very advice: Write what you know. True, most writers mine their own lives for inspiration. But that is just the starting point for fiction. The true story is fine for journalists and memoirists, but fiction writers need to abandon the true story and discover a truer story: the emotional truth.

When I wrote my novel The Knitting Circle, I wanted to write an emotionally true story about a woman who loses her daughter and gets through her grief by learning to knit. The true story is that I lost my own five-year-old daughter and learning to knit did help me through the terrible grief that followed. But I didn’t want to write my true story. I knew how that one went. Instead, I wanted to uncover the emotional truth about grief.

I began by changing the basic facts of the true story. When Grace died, I also had an eight-year-old son, Sam. And I knew that having him helped me through my grief too. So, I wondered, what if my protagonist loses her only child?

As soon as I asked myself that question, I stepped far away from my true story and entered the world of my imagination. What if her husband leaves her? What if she is estranged from her mother? And new to town? What if the knitting store burns down? With each question away from what I knew, I fell deeper into an imagined world and closer to an emotionally true story.

The writer Grace Paley said, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you don’t know about what you know.” To do that, I start with something I know. Then I apply the tools of fiction writing to it — scenes, characters, language, a dramatic arc, a climax, and a resolution. And of course the most important tool a writer has: imagination. With all of that, then my stories can take flight.


Ann Hood’s new novel is The Book That Matters Most. She’s also the author of the bestselling novels The Knitting Circle and The Obituary Writer and the memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, which was named one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 and was a New York Times Editors Choice. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

www.annhood.us

2 Comments

  1. Tricia Carr

    August 16, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    At last somebody has said it! “Write what you know” is the worst advice for fiction writers, and tends to stop young writers especially right in their first tentative tracks. Write what I know? I don’t know anything yet!
    Write what you like to read, or write what you’re seeking to know, or write what fascinates you. Look within and find the story that wants to be written, and excavate that. But never limit yourself to just what you already know.

    • Jean R.

      August 19, 2016 at 5:29 am

      Ms. Hood,

      This simple tip: concise and straight forward, was so eye-opening and on point in bridging the gap between the common advice given to ‘write what you know’ with common sense guidance to write what you don’t know about what you know. Thanks! 🙂

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